WASHINGTON - Christie Whitman, sometimes at odds with the Bush White House over environmental issues and a lightning rod for the administration's critics, resigned Wednesday as head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Whitman said in a letter to President Bush that she was leaving to spend time with family.
"As rewarding as the past two-and-a-half years have been for me professionally, it is time to return to my home and husband in New Jersey, which I love just as you do your home state of Texas," she wrote Bush.
With WhitmanÃ s departure as EPA administrator, Bush loses one of the most prominent women in his Cabinet - a moderate former New Jersey governor selected by the president to help soften his image as a political conservative, particularly on environmental issues.
In a statement, Bush called Whitman "a trusted friend and adviser who has worked closely with me to achieve real and meaningful results to improve our environment," and also "a dedicated and tireless fighter for new and innovative policies for cleaner air, purer water and better protected land."
"Christie Todd Whitman has served my administration exceptionally well," he said. "I thank her for her outstanding service to our nation and wish her well as she returns to New Jersey."
Whitman had a history of sometimes clashing with the White House, starting with the president's abrupt decision to withdraw from the Kyoto global warming treaty.
As Bush gears up his re-election campaign, the White House has advised that if senior staff and Cabinet members are thinking of leaving the administration, this is the time to resign; otherwise, they will be expected to remain aboard until after the 2004 election if Bush wins a second term. White House press secretary Ari Fleischer announced Monday that he will resign in July.
Whitman had differences with White House officials early during Bush's presidency when she advised him in a March 6, 2001, memo that global warming "is a credibility issue for the U.S. in the international community" and "we need to appear engaged" in negotiations. The administration later withdrew from the Kyoto, Japan treaty on the issue negotiated by former Vice President Al Gore, Bush's Democratic opponent in the 2000 election.
She also pushed enforcement of a Clean Air Act provision known as "New Source Review," requiring that any increase in production from older factories, power plants and refineries be accompanied by state-of-the-art pollution controls. Those measures were opposed in Bush's energy policy initiative.
"IÃ m not leaving because of clashes with the administration. In fact, I haven't had any. I report to the president, he has always asked me to give him my best unadulterated advice," Whitman said in an interview with reporters Wednesday.
"I'm leaving now because it's the appropriate time to do it," she said.
Three White House officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, insisted Whitman was not forced out, but rather wanted to return home. They said Bush was nowhere near selecting a new EPA chief.
One name mentioned by administration officials as a possible successor was Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary David Struhs. Another name mentioned was Josephine Cooper, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.
Bush will be under pressure to replace Whitman with a nominee acceptable to his GOP supporters, as well as swing voters who tend to be wary of Republicans on the environment.
Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt., a frequent administration critic when it comes to environmental issues, praised Whitman for her service. "She brought grace and leadership to the EPA at a trying time and did the best job she could under very challenging circumstances," he said.
Whitman said she informed Bush about her decision Tuesday afternoon, and the two spoke at the White House for about a half-hour. Two weeks earlier, she told White House chief of staff Andrew Card she might resign.
Whitman, in her resignation letter, defended the administration's environmental policies which have been under attack by environmentalists as a series of rollbacks in protecting the nation's air, water and land.
"Our work has been guided by the strong belief that environmental protection and economic prosperity can and must go hand-in-hand," she wrote.
She pointed to initiatives to reduce pollution from off-road diesel engines, a push to cut pollution from school buses and "our aggressive and effective efforts to enforce the nationÃ s environmental laws."
Whitman, 56, joined the administration after seven years as governor of New Jersey, where she made preservation a priority but never managed to convince environmentalists she was one of them.
When the Bush administration took office, Whitman had a brief honeymoon: Within the first three months, she upset industry executives and conservationists, disappointed moderates who like her and angered conservatives who don't.
"Christie Whitman must feel like her own long national nightmare is over," said Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, an advocacy group. "No EPA administrator has ever been so consistently and publicly humiliated by the White House."